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Tribal talk

So why is it so hard to discuss climate change in a neutral and rational manner? It is all about evidence and science, so why should that raise such a flaming war of arguments? We don't get into fights about the theory of gravity or functionality of car engines - the theory of gravity has been tested and verified by a mass of empirical evidence, so it is hard to argue against it. And we all see that a car engine works, making a car move onwards. That is engineering, based on findings of scientific research. I haven't heard that many people claiming that a car engine is a fraud, that in reality they are all pedal powered like bicycles. So why should climate change be any different? To illustrate this, let me tell a fictional story;


Once there was an island of Booga Tolaga. There were two tribes living there, The Mudheads and The Gearheads. The mudheads were a majority, they were hardworking merry fellows. And they had an annual ritual, which most of the mudheads participated. Once a year, after a rain season, they gathered together to the central river of Booga Tolaga, they dipped their hair into the mud of the riverbed, and danced around chanting "we are the mudheads, we are the mudheads". That went on all night through, until they returned back to their homes and to their normal lives. Well, The Gearheads didn't have so many tribal rituals. They were hardworking mery fellows just like mudheads.

Then, once it so happened that the relations between those two tribes started to get somewhat tense. The Mudheads felt that when making common decisions concerning the agriculture, industry and culture of the Booga Tolaga, the The Gearheads have gained more power than should be proportional to the size of gearhead population. Also, more and more of gearheads had started to shave their hair short, to clearly distinguish them from mudheads. And indeed, many of the gearheads thought that because they are technologically a bit more advanced than the more traditional mudheads, that also makes gearheads better persons, culturally above the simple and uneducated mudheads. Such a tense situation made most of mudheads to stick to their traditions, to emphasize any and all of their habits which made them different from gearheads, taking full pride in their cultural roots and traditions.

But I must say that they were decent people, both mudheads and gearheads. There were no gang fights, no outright violence in between the two groups. Or, at least, not yet. Day by day, month by month, year by year one could feel the situation growing more tense, and there were fears of the situation escalating beyond control. Despite all of this, the normal life went on. They still had the Booga Tolaga News, a paper published once a week which delivered news of the island. One of the things which was a common problem for both the gearheads and the mudheads was washing dishes. On their island detergents weren't yet invented, they didn't have any kind of dishwashing soap. Most commonly used method was to take the dishes to the main river and to rub them with the sand of the riverbed. Then, one gearhead experimented with different methods, comparing washing in the river to using a hard brush and a bucket of water. He found out that the brush and bucket is better, as sometimes with river washing traces of sand and mud are left on plates, and when you eat from those plates, grains of sand and mud might end up in your mouth, damaging your teeth. Willing to share this handy advice with everyone, he wrote an article in the Booga Tolaga News, describing his experiment and suggesting members of both tribes to adopt the bucket and brush method.

And that article, it raised a flood of angry responses from mudheads. They wrote "We are not going to listen to a gearhed telling us to abandon our traditions and to adopt theirs!", "This is going too far! First the gearheads think they are better than us, then they gain more and more power in the decision making process, now they tell us to abandon our traditions, soon there will be nothing left of our mighty culture!". And why is that? Well, mostly because the article contains a key-word "mud", associated with a negative outcome. And our human brain, they are pre-wired to spot tribal symbols and to react to familiar patterns. So, most of mudheads didn't bother about thinking in detail about different methods of washing dishes. They only saw the article saying "mud is a bad thing", and since mud is part of their tribal identity, they were all offended and launched a counter-strike. Soon the Booga Tolaga News saw a series of articles describing "how gearhead habits are unhealthy and destructive", "how there is nothing bad about mud, that grains of mud damaging your teeth is a mere hoax, and in reality chewing grains of mud makes your teeth grow stronger - it is only the lousy gearheads complaining because they have such a weak teeth!"

Now, imagine that in this situation you would arrive at Booga Tolaga as a tourist. You'd soon realize that the situation between the two tribes is rather tense. As a tourist, you are completely neutral, and you don't want to take sides in the verbal fight of the tribes. On the contrary, you are interested in the habits and traditions of both cultures. And, honestly, in your own thoughts you'd think that their argument about ways of washing dishes is a lot overheated and indeed off-topic. You mention this to a person who is running the inn where you stay. And immediately he gets furious and wards you off his hostel, yelling: "You think this dishwashing discussion doesn't matter? Haha! I knew it, you are a secret agent of mudheads, you came here to sabotage our cultural movement. Now pack your stuff and go to your fellow mudheads, there you can find people who think like you do!". Uh oh. And when you arrive at an area which is populated only by The Mudheads you just know that there is no way you could wash your own dishes with a hard brush in a bucket of water. That would immediately be taken as sign that you are on side of the enemy, that you think yourself being better than your hosts, and that you want to see The Mudhead culture vanishing and all the remaining mudheads being culturally assimilated into the gearhead culture. So there you are, washing your dishes with the sand of the main river. And you notice that more and more mudheads have started to purposefully leave some traces of mud on their plates. And to have problem with their teeth, but they don't complain, because the are The Mudheads and every mudhead has strong teeth !!!


Oh well. So, I think this is one of the problems with things like the climate change discussion. When it is not taken as a purely scientific and practical question, but is turned into a question of tribal identity. To me it seems that there are people who didn't follow that much the science news. And then, when they first hear about climate change, to them it seems like some annoying left-green-liberal-feminist-besserwissers appear on the tv-screen telling that driving a car is bad thing and that people should drive less. Now, driving a car seems to be a central cultural symbol for some people, so they get offended by their symbol being mocked. And when people get offended, they don't stop to think clearly, they don't stop to check the scientific facts. When you face an existential threat, there is no time to stop pondering, as all you need to do is to fiercely defend yourself and the things you love. So, if one feels that the ordinary average car-driving culture of decent hardworking people is threatened, it is time to stand up in defence.

Also, it might be that a group of people had already developed a negative attitude towards left-green-liberal-feminist-besserwissers. And that being the case, they generally speaking dislike and oppose what ever that enemy group says. So that "climate change" is not seen as words referring to a phenomenon which could be studied by science - instead, "climate change" is seen as a tribal symbol, some sort of slogan which is associated with the enemy group. Just like sport teams and the like tend to have their own cheering calls, supporters shouting the slogan and singing the anthems of the group they support. Those slogans aren't that much evaluated by their literal meaning, as they are just taken as saying "We are good, the others are lousy!". In that context, merely pausing to think about the scientific facts of the climate change might be seen as questioning ones own tribal identity, planning to commit a betrayal of tribal values. And we all know that traitors, they are among the most despised criminals of all. So, if one doesn't want to be a traitor, then better just stay with the traditional habits and slogans of ones own tribe.

Of course, it is not only the so called conservative camp who sometimes fail to discuss climate change in a neutral and scientific way because they take it as a symbol of tribal identity. To some extent it is also the so called leftist-liberal camp which mocks and insults the conservatives, and represents its views in such a way that they are easily perceived as posing an existential threat to a conservative lifestyle and values. So, personally, I certainly don't want to take sides in this kind of a fight. I think that in too many cases both parties fall into the same trap - failing to discuss practical questions in a neutral manner, resorting to mockery and insults as a means of power struggle. Sigh. But I don't pretend that I would know that what should be done to make the discussion easier. My best guess is that all sides should aim to de-escalate the situation and to calm down. No-one is able to think clearly when the situation heats into an existential fight. And once a sufficient calm would be restored, it might be possible to distinguish between concrete practical questions and tribal slogans.

Also, to me it seems that there is a layer of dark irony hidden in the situation. Let's imagine a tribal conservative who identifies with the lifestyle of shopping industrially produced meat for a cheap price, driving a big car, enjoying a great variety of consumer goods, and most of the time not willing to bother with complicated questions but rather seeing easy life as a goal in itself. Now, should that person abandon some aspects of that tribal lifestyle in order to protect the climate, which is out there far away somewhere? Why should one bother about increasing temperatures, as generally speaking feeling cold is unpleasant, and feeling warmer is better. And what if the big climate changes a little? That is just natural, and it has happened so many times before, nature will adapt and why should us humans bother about it? Well, let's see;

Indeed, the climate has changed so many times in the history of The Earth. Earlier, there have been a major changes caused by the organisms living on this Earth, and yet the life has survived. For example, more than 2.5 billion years ago the life on Earth was prospering - there wasn't a certain poisonous gas in the atmosphere, and the life consistent mostly of single cell bacteria. Eventually, one species of bacteria evolved a new way to produce energy to sustain its life - that was a success, and the population of that bacteria grew larger. The only downside was that this new way of producing energy produced also a certain poisonous gas. That species of bacteria itself was tolerant to the said gas. Over the millions of years, more and more of that poisonous gas was emitted into the atmosphere, eventually wiping off most of the other bacteria which got poisoned to extinction. Luckily enough, that was not the end of life on Earth, as over millions and millions of years new species evolved which were also tolerant. Now, that new way of producing energy is called photosynthesis, the said poisonous gas is dioxygen - ie. the ordinary oxygen we humans depend on. This event led to a dramatic change in the conditions of Earth, enabling the conditions favourable to the forms of life we now see inhabiting The Earth. Ah, a mass extinction - nothing to worry about, these things come and go =)

Okay, actually I don't believe that the effects of the current climate change would be anything near the great oxification. But let's just suppose that there will be more frequent storms and droughts, and altering wind patterns affecting the local weather on major agricultural areas of The Earth. Anyone who is even remotely familiar with agriculture knows that things like a prolonged drought, mistimed rains, a heavy storm or introduction of new pests can have a huge impact on the harvest of the year. And all we need is a two successive years of handful of those events on key agricultural areas, and we will see the global food prices skyrocketing. And a lot of urban people going hungry, desperate, and angry. In that kind of situation, somehow I'd imagine that the lifestyle of our stereotypical tribal conservative would be heavily affected. No more cheap food at the supermarket shelves. Global unrest affecting the oil supply, doubling or trebling the fuel price. Things like that. So, when people speak about political, economical and technological means of tackling the climate change, they are not talking about a need to abandon the tribal identity of some groups of ordinary people - on the contrary, they are actually talking about protecting the peaceful ordinary lifestyle of the common folks. Only that we might need a series of little changes here and there, if we want to avoid uncontrolled major overall changes in the future. Hmm. Or that is the way I think =)

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It is a complicated discussion, hehe.

I think the biggest problem here in the USA is that the collectivist segment of our government likes to use the EPA and the BLM to pursue political goals, and that actually protecting the environment comes in a very distant second.

For example, the EPA has far reaching powers over "waters in the US", which includes temporary basins that only form during heavy rains (puddles). The politicians use this power to reward those who give them money, and punish those who do not. For example, an oil fracking company who has made large campaign contributions to a politician is allowed to leave ponds of toxic fracking waste just sitting there. While at the same time, if there is a hard rain and a little bit of cow manure is washed into the river, a small farmer can be fined tens of thousands of dollars, enough to put them out of business. It becomes even more insidious when government power is used to shut down a small business so that a big business benefits from it.

Some would say that this is a failure of capitalism, but I would counter that this is not free market capitalism at all, but instead is corrupt "Corporatism", where the government acts as an agent of the corporation instead of acting to break up monopolies and other such things that it is /supposed/ to do in order to support free market capitalism.

Getting back to the original topic, I am pretty sure that climate change is happening, but I feel like I don't have enough information to decide whether I think it is good or bad. Our growing season is definitely longer now than it was when I was a child, and we haven't had to feed any hay yet this year, and the cows are very happy to still have fresh grass to eat. Here it seems to be a "good" thing, on balance. But I read about it being "bad" on balance in other places, with unpredictable weather and such things.

But what I do feel strongly about is, it seems like almost all of the climate change "research" is paid for by our very government that is a whore (sorry for the foul language) to big business, and I am therefore very very dubious about it being much other than politically motivated "junk science", intended to use emotion and fear to sway the masses into supporting regulations that act to shut down small business to the advantage of large corporations. Like maybe it is just more hyperbolic sensationalism, just like the misrepresented "mass shooting problem" or the statistically negligible "terrorism fearmongering", just a way to get the public worked up and pass more regulations that are detrimental to our individual freedoms in the long run, concentrating more and more of the political and economic power among the elites at the top, instead of down amongst we common people where it belongs.

But I don't know. I don't know how to know, or what data is unbiased and what isn't. My personal observations about it seeming "good" in some places and "bad" in others, I don't know how to support that without trustworthy data, and I can't tell if I am basing my opinions on unbiased observations, or if I am remembering the weather of the past through rose-colored lenses, so to speak. It is all so politicized, at least here in the States, that I am not sure that there is any room for anyone to meet in the middle any more. Both sides seem to treat it almost as a religion, and I think when we start acting that way and closing off our minds to the more neutral sorts of possibilities, that is when hope for compromise and a rational solution goes away. :(

So I guess I am not "for" or "against" climate change. But I am vehemently against politically motivated junk science, if indeed that really is what is happening here, and assuming that I am not just being a crazy person. :3

I sincerely apologize for the long-winded rant, and I hope that I haven't said anything too offensive. :) Indeed, it is hard to have a discussion on the subject, haha.

Generally speaking, I agree with a lot of things you describe in this comment. At the moment I avoid going into too much detail, so here are thee additional comments from my point of view:

1. I think what we have seen in past two or three decades is just the beginning. The main question is how will the climate be in another 30 - 50 years, if the carbon dioxide emissions keep on their current level or higher. As, indeed, at the current stage of the climate change, it might seem as somewhat modest and nothing to worry about. So, the question is the future.

2. Overall, it might also be that the local effects of climate change in Finland turn out to be more on the plus side - longer growing season, and less energy spent on heating in the mild winters. But, to me, this seems a bit like a person living in the top level of a block of flats, then saying "ah, a fire has broken out in the basement? Luckily it doesn't concern me, on the contrary I can just enjoy my flat being warmed by the fire!". I mean, we do live in a global world, our modern lifestyle depends a lot on global production and transportation of goods. Also, with all the modern means of transportation, people can mass migrate over the globe if their homes get destroyed. So, if a heavily populated area somewhere else is heavily affected, then all of us will be affected - either directly or indirectly. So, even if I had 100% accurate scientific data showing that my local climate will be more favourable, I'd still stand against the climate change, as I'd guess major political and economical disturbances elsewhere would have ill effects here, too.

3. Well, as much as I can read and follow the science news and discussion, to me it seems rather dubious that government funding would have seriously biased the majority of climate science. On the contrary, there are verified cases of some scientists taking a lot of money from big oil companies, and trying to produce scientific reports denying the climate change. (EDIT: and later on some of those deniers have had to admit that they were wrong - the sheer amount of data of rising temperatures just makes it that hard to try to deny it happening.) As, it is the big oil companies who profit from the old system, and they are afraid of a major shift in means of energy production. So, if we are speaking about science being biased by big money, here it is mostly the climate change deniers who are into that business. No, that doesn't mean that all the other climate change scientist is 100% honest with nothing to criticize. But that is how science works - it is essential the everybody doesn't agree. Then the disputes are to be settled by means of strictly controlled experiments and observations, to collect unbiased data to support either this or that hypothesis. And at the moment, the vast majority of data heavily supports the central theories of climate change being boosted by us humans burning fossil fuels.


Lastly, the way you describe EPA being used to advance political and economical goals of one group of people, against other group of people - I think that is a perfect real-life example of ways to sow distrust and to escalate "tribal conflicts". A lot of that kind of stuff is happening here, too. A lot of legislation and regulations make life harder for small-scale enterpreneurs and family-scale farmers, giving the advantage to the big companies. I certainly don't like that, and I suspect that there is some big money games being played behind the scenes. But, from my point of view, this is not to be confused with climate change as an empirical phenomenon. (Even if I didn't like the tribe of gearheads, rationally speaking I should admit that some of their observations and ideas might actually work.)

Ah, one more clarification =)

From my point of view (being academically educated but not working in the science, not being a member of any political party, just living in the woods and observing the world news) it certainly doesn't look like there being a lot of politically motivated junk science. On the contrary, to me it seems rather alarming how our politicians ignore a lot of scientific research which would be there to aid them to make better decisions. Oh no no, all the time we see politicians making decisions against what the science says. It seems that political decisions are more based on old unverified myths and big money profit. If decisions A would be scientifically grounded but harmful for big company X, then politicians who got funding from X avoid making the decision A and instead make a decision B - which most of the scientists say will lead to problems. But who cares, as decision B leads to more profit for X. And more profit for me and my friends, isn't that the ultimate goal of the political system? =)

EDIT: OK, I wrote that bit too quickly =) Indeed, there is a thing like junk science. And some of it is politically motivated (but in those cases, to me it seems that this isn't that much because of external funding, but more because of the political agenda of those scientists.) But we can't just lump all "science" into one big box. The whole scientific community is a big thing, with many branches and schools. It varies from rather "hard data" of physics to much more "vague" interpretations of sociology and such. Now, if we are talking about the climate change, it comes much closer to the physical side, where it is pretty much harder to get your measurements biased because of your political beliefs. If the temperature is 100 F, the thermometer will say so, no matter if there is a right wing or a left wing scientist taking a look at the thermometer =)

Great stuff. There are some studies showing that our attitudes and beliefs about climate change are better explained by our social circles than scientific literacy. The "liberal" camp has some of it's own myths that go against scientific mainstream. Important issues should not be framed in a way that feeds only into liberal or conservative preconceptions. Maybe the focus on climate justice has had the adverse side-effect of framing climate change as a leftist issue. We should talk more about security and stability. It's funny that I saw those results discussed in a book called Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene. Erkka's thinking seems to be very close to Greene.

Haha, maybe I'm a secret follower of Joshua Greene without reading a single paper from him =)

I have an impression that especially in the USA over the recent years the military officials have increasingly began talking about climate change as a security issue - that uncontrolled climate change is most likely going to spark social unrest and political turmoil, which will also harm the national security of USA. (And, indeed, the little I understand, the war in Syria was to some extent sparked by droughts, and the way the Assad regime responded to it.)

But as there is this psychological effect that we tend to stick with our original opinions, the first impression is always crucial. If the climate change has already been stigmatized as a partisan question, it might take some time for attitudes to shift. Let's see how this goes...

Some years ago an environmental group I'm involved in got Bruce Oreck, ex US ambassador, to give a presentation. It was just dynamite, rhetorically speaking. I wish there were Finnish public figures like that.

This is a question I've been thinking about a lot, lately.

In Finland it has typically been so that charismatic speakers who are able to inspire and to "rally troops" have most often been those who run some sort of religious sect or other vile affair aimed at boosting their personal profits and using the followers as milking cows to gain money. Well, here I'm somewhat exaggerating, but you get the idea...

OK, there is that Slush -hype which I know very little about, as that scene feels so alien to me. But I'd guess they have something like that going on in those circles. Other than that? Hmmm...


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